Emerging, Family, Living in This World, Preaching

The way we talk about things

In between coffee and oatmeal, I heard something fascinating, an examination of how many times the President and Mrs. Obama used the personal pronoun in their remarks to the Olympic Committee a few days ago. This bothered someone (George Will?), and it seemed to irritate the cast of characters at Morning Joe, even though they on the whole supported the President's trip to promote Chicago bid to host the Olympics.

And it occurred to me, this is another example of the break-points between modern and post-modern culture. My experience of post-modern culture and church is that it's more about narrative and depth and that, by necessity, includes telling our personal stories.

Not that people haven't told their stories. Listen to any young/new pastor trying to make the adjustment to visiting elderly parishioners, shocked that they repeat their stories. (As if younger people don't…) But we haven't typically told them in political speeches or sermons. This is new.

Not too long ago I watched a short video from workingpreacher.org in which the presenter insisted that sermons ought not include personal stories.


If that's the standard, I may as well hang up the preaching shoes and get a job at Starbucks. I mean, I *can* write a sermon without a personal story, but that is simply not the way the Spirit works in and through me. If you are friends with me on Facebook and noted the conversation I had on this topic, you'll know it really left me questioning what I do and how I do it.

But last week, I got some feedback that helped a lot, in a meeting with the Pastoral Relations Committee, where a lay person told me that when I preach at Y1P there are many people who speak to her and say how much they like the way I do it, particularly the way everyday things are woven together with the word of God to create a whole.

Thank you, Jesus. That was helpful.

And it occurs to me that there is a difference between narcissism or testimony and putting things in context. We don't live in a world anymore where we can assume shared experiences. If a pastor of 40 years talks about the movies or the music that meant something to him, without setting up the context, his sermon may well feel irrelevant to people who don't share his cultural understandings.

I do agree that testimony is tricky if only the pastor employs it. If I've had a spectacular spiritual experience, and you haven't, and I preach about it, I'm not necessarily encouraging you to believe you'll have one or to seek one (as if most of us can). More likely I'm creating a two-tiered system in which I am the "holy" person with the mystical experiences and the people in the pews are the audience.

To go back to the Obamas, I love the way they employ their life stories in their interpretation of where we are today and where we hope to be. We don't live in a world comprised only of intact, white Protestant families. But those of us who grew up in those families need to hear stories other than our own.

My children grew up, are growing up, in what we used to call a broken home. They would be considered at risk, according to various studies, for early sexual acting out and truancy and academic failure and all sorts of things you would never want your kids to face. After the divorce, #1 Son did not want anyone to identify him as a kid whose parents had divorced. (Chime in if you read this and think that's wrong, #1 Son, but I believe that's an accurate telling.) He was able to maintain that sort of Twilight Zone because we kept things calm and reasonable, The Father of My Children and I, and because when Pure Luck came into the family, he took his time with the kids and did not try to be someone he was not in relationship to them.

We've defied statistics. I'm thankful for that.

But a speech that is just about that ends up sounding like a major case of hubris, dangerously so, and I would rather normalize my family's experience for others by referring to it slant-wise, not making a report about it.

I'm in favor of telling our stories, of broadening our collective understanding of how people live, of testifying to our practical reality and our spiritual hopes and our social dreams.


22 thoughts on “The way we talk about things”

  1. Absolutely. Isn’t that why we blog and read blogs too? To be connected to each other through our stories?

  2. As someone pursuing licensed lay ministry and currently taking a class on homiletics, I have been confused hearing both sides of this issue. Reveal the personal or not in a sermon? When I think of the sermons I most enjoy, they usually contain some morsel from the preacer’s life, sometimes I can relate to it and sometimes I can not as it may not speak to my own experience, but it is still “connecting” in a different way as it is an opening up of one’s life and sharing it with others. As long as it isn’t a sermon that is all “me, me, me” (and I have heard a few of those as well) I feel it is important to include something from our own lives when preaching, if relevent.
    We are living in an age where we are distanced from one another, we have technology to replace face to face contact, we isolate ourselves out of fear of those different from us, we have less and less community interaction in churches and other gatherings as attendance dwindles. In many ways, this makes this the “Age of the Story”, as it is what does tie us together and help us find commong ground in a world where we often don’t allow ourselves the opportunity to get to know others on more intimate levels.

  3. I get the most sermon feedback (mostly positive) when I tell my own story alongside the biblical story. (Testify) I worry whether it is because “the personal is universal” as I learned somewhere, or whether I am just a fair-to-good storyteller. But I probably should just get out of the way and let the Spirit speak however it speaks.

  4. I’m fond of the tag line used by the biography channel: every life has a story. On those occasions when I encounter people I would rather walk away from (for whatever reason) I try to remember that their life has a story, and that the story deserves to be honored, even if I never know what it is. If I am going to grow as a person it behooves me to listen and pay attention to the details. Almost always that changes the way I see another, and for that I thank God.

  5. May advice as a pew-sitter: Don’t tell a story just to be telling it, for example if it comes from the Reader’s Digest or one of those Internet preacher-story sites that specialize in “warm-up acts for Jesus”. But stories from your own experience are good. Also some of the sermons I’ve gotten a lot from were sermons drawing on the pastoral care experience — illustrating what the pastor learned from the people he was visiting. (Our church had enough of those that nobody knew exactly who he was talking about.) I also like “first-person sermons” where the preacher puts him/herself into the shoes of a Bible character. The sermons I have read of yours are good sermons, no matter whose “rules” they break.

  6. I think that preaching via stories are the only way that we can capture the attention of all generations in the same room (which is how I believe worship should be). The proper story–not exclusive stories that only have relevancy for one generation or another. Disney has found a way of doing this very well (and other screenwriters…Big Fish is another example). What can we learn from their story telling?

  7. Totally agree with Auntie Knickers. I’ve heard enough Reader’s Digest stories and Quotable Quotes in sermons….to last me a lifetime. Tell me something REAL, please!

  8. It is rare that I preach a sermon without sharing an experience or story or testimony from my journey. For me, I am simply sharing what has happened in my life and offering it food for thought along side the biblical story. Our biblical tradition is story(well, most of it). It seems to me to be more old school preacher NOT to be personal in one’s preaching. It also MIGHT be gender-ish, too, although I have no grounds for that except having three male colleagues who rarely use(d) personal story in their preaching. Their preaching styles are markedly different than mine, which makes for a nice balance. Recently, a woman who just joined the church said the reason she came back to church the second time was because on the first visit, I shared something about my faith journey/experience which made her feel more connected. She came from a tradition where clergy and the people are quite separate, and for her, not relateable. I write this a little wonked out on cold meds, though, so I hope it makes sense!

  9. I was thinking about something similar this Sunday when I purposefully left the sanctuary to hang out in the nursery before the sermon. Our student-preacher was up to bat, and he had the word ‘menstruation’ in the sermon title. As a 24year old woman with reproductive health issues, I really don’t want to hear what a 24year old man has to say about the connection between Jesus dying and my period. And it turned out I was smart to have left – a number of people I spoke with, men and women, were very offended.
    Now, I admit I don’t really care for this kid in general. But what really gets me is the way he uses OTHER people’s life experience to try and interpret the scripture. I’ve heard him preach a number of times over the last few years, and yet I know more about his roommates then I do about him.
    This post and the comments have encouraged me to speak out about my feelings on this matter. I mean, he can’t get better if no one ever tells him he needs to, right?

  10. I also thoroughly agree with Auntie Knickers. And you, Songbird. I almost always include a personal story–if I can’t connect the Word to my own life, then how can I expect the listeners to do the same?

  11. Funny this should be your topic this week. In our lectionary this past Sunday, the gospel was Jesus’ teachings on divorce ending with the “let the little children come to me.” We had a guest “preacher” this weekend who was okay and brought out some issues our congregation needs to address regarding the recent ELCA resolutions on human sexuality.
    However, later that day my 23 yo son asked me what I thought of the sermon. I told him that I really wasn’t paying that much attention because I was thinking about the last sermon I heard on this passage when it was in the lectionary 3 years ago. Our then pastor, who experienced divorce 15 years before preached a very personal sermon on divorce.
    Dh and I have never experienced divorce either directly or through our natal families. But by the tone in the sanctuary 3 years ago, I knew that there were many people sitting in those pews who had failed at marriage and experienced healing of some very old wounds through the message they heard that day.
    After I said that, my son remembered that sermon as well. From 3 years ago! Yes, sharing a personal application in a sermon can be risky…..but it can be very powerful, and just what someone in the pews needs to hear.

  12. I love the story, I use the story to connect. It’s that Anne Lamott “Me too!” moment that allows me to remember that the divine in me coexists with the human and that it’s okay to be human, imperfect and broken. When I am allowed to see another’s brokenness then my own broken heart is able to reach out in concert with–in support of and with the support of–that other broken heart and grab hold of the grace of God. To live within another’s story–even for just that moment–is the way I work to find compassion for myself and for the world. And who better for me to learn this story of compassion than my own priest, who is my shepherd and yet is servant of all, my guide and my friend?

  13. We blog, so we believe in telling stories, yes? Although I suppose that take says something about the RevGal conversation about men and women bloggers. When I read a blog or hear or read a sermon, I am not looking to be talked “at,” to have propositions explained to me or doctrine proclaimed. I am looking for a subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) interweaving and exploration of faith and life.
    I agree that it’s tricky. Most (though not all) of what I write in my blogs I would preach only “slant.” But I believe that our stories encompass one another’s and that it is only in the telling of them that we learn that and grow into loving community.

  14. I am NOT a graduate of all things ministerial (is that correct) however, when I was blessed to be asked to lead worship in our minister’s absence, I have been known to speak about my own life experiences in reference to how it might relate to the topic of the day/month/whatever. It was my comfort zone and I have been told that I used it well. As for Songbird and her use of the familiar, I found,during her time with FFP, that her use of her life experiences drew me in, gave me something to reference, made the sermon “come alive.” Shorter version of my lengthy comment: I’m all for it.

  15. I think stories are great to help the listener see the application. Paul, the Apostle talked about his life when he preached and wrote Scripture. I think it’s Biblical myself.
    Thanks for your post. I enjoyed it and the responses.

  16. I dare say that I think stories are *essential* to connecting the Gospel with the lives we lead!
    I think it was Fred Craddock who I heard say that when we are preaching, we’re not up there trying to teach people what we know (although sometimes we are, but I digress…), but to remind them of what they already know. When we tell stories, we get them thinking of what they already know to be true about how to be community together, how to love one another, how to relate to one another, how to apply their faith. It’s like Kimberly Mason said above, with Anne Lamott’s “me, too!” How else can you achieve that without story?
    Whoever made that video you saw on workingpreacher.org should get one of those V-8 bonks on the head!

  17. The thing is, in any relationship, if I can’t identify with the person as someone who has a personal story to tell and can easily share themselves that way, the relationship is rather hollow to me. I adore how you can weave the sermon around real life Songbird. It’s only one of the reasons why I wish sometimes I lived waaaay up there…lol. :c) XOXO

  18. I agree–so many well written responses. Really isn’t the issue about exogesus vs. isogesus (spelling faulty I’m sure) but if the example from life impacts the reading of the Word, then keep it. If it is some personal pet peeve that I want to get on my soap box about, I question myself and pray about it and might purposely leave it out of the sermon.
    I walked a thin line on that one last time I wrote a sermon, so I’m expecting to hear what the other lay ministers thought when we meet again for pericope.

  19. I’m uncomfortable with the notion that you should NEVER or ALWAYS do something in preaching. And I think the preacher needs to learn and work with her/his own gifts. And storytelling is one of your gifts, SB. It’s not one of mine, and I am a different sort of preacher than you are but I believe there is a call for both (all) kinds of preaching. Let the Spirit work through you as She will! You have amazing gifts and we are blessed that you share them with us.

  20. I loved reading this. Lots to think about. I wish I lived in Maine. I think I’d enjoy wlaking dogs and talking with you.

  21. I get very tired of people taking something that happens to be true for their personality type and trying to make it a rule for everyone. You work well telling personal stories. (As it happens, so do I.) Other people are more academic. God in his/her infinite wisdom decided that the world needed all of us. I can live with that. I wish everyone could.

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